Secretariat: Real American Hero (cue dramatic music).

Posted on 08 October 2010 by ChloeG

It was just a poster.

I found it at a gift shop, paging through a stack of fantastic horse posters, and for reasons I can’t quite explain, I found myself crying, looking at a poster of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.  There was nothing special about the shots; just a head shot of each on a classic green background, but being in the presence of even the idea of those three legends was overwhelming. When someone I was with came back looking for me, I had to go hide in the most boring corner of the shop I could find in order to pull myself together.

Secretariat lists number two on my list of all-time self-selected heroes. Quaid challenged me as to whether it was appropriate for people to have horse heroes, but I stand behind it. I cry every year at the Derby (if you have to ask which one… just, sigh), every other year at the Olympics, and every time I see a soldier combined with an American flag in a commercial. The thing about the champion horses, though, is that they are incorruptible, untarnishable heroes. They won’t cheat on their wives or turn up with an STD, nor will they take a swing at a cop after a bender or get caught in a picture with a joint or say something disillusioningly dull for a reporter to quote. All they do is run with great heart and great passion and great beauty.

I went into Secretariat with apprehensions of what meeting someone else’s idea of my hero would be like. It doesn’t take much artistic license to ruin a hero.

The story of Secretariat the horse is one of American mythology. There are two sides to this myth; the human side and the horse side, and the movie took a swing at them both. It completely screwed up the human side of the story (all but about 15 minutes of the movie), but I’ll let Quaid tell you about that; I plan to stick to the part of the movie that I chose to watch (he thinks I’m going to be upset about him panning the movie; don’t tell, but I actually appreciate him allowing me to ignore the glaring flaws with impunity).

In the horse-racing world, there are two characteristics that define champion horses: speed and endurance horses. The speed horses can have perfectly successful and profitable racing and stud careers as sprinters, but the super-stars are the distance horses – the ones that combine the two successfully. Every race that the layman has ever heard of is a distance race, more or less, and horses that are good at (or bred for) sprints rarely make good at the distances. Not that they don’t try.

According to the movie, Secretariat was bred as a speed horse. He was branded a speed horse. And yet, after a very successful 2-year-old year (mostly captured in the movie with a gratuitous slow-motion shot of the final three strides to the wire – glorious), he was put on a path to run the Kentucky Derby and make a run for the Triple Crown. No one had done it in 25 years, and it was generally thought – as it is today – that it might never happen again. This is about as close as he ever professionally got to being an underdog.

This movie, from the horse side of the myth, is about glory. It’s about a horse with unmeasured talent and capability. A workout rider comments early in the movie that he’s just a big kid out playing around on the track. Running wasn’t a chore or a burden for him, it was simply what he did. The movie opens with a quote from Job about the power and the fearlessness of the horse, and it holds that romance. None of the dirt or the ill-temperedness or the smell of being around horses bleeds through. The idea of Secretariat is simply above all of that.

Unfortunately, though, the horse is not a character in this movie. He is an “it,” an over there, mostly a plot device for the human side of the myth. The only time he gets a real spotlight is when he’s racing, but honestly, just the three Triple Crown races justify the rest of the wading. And the Belmont, oh, the Belmont. I’m not sure how many of the people involved in making the movie actually got it, but the Belmont is the point of Secretariat. It is the crown jewel of the legend of Secretariat the horse, and the centerpiece of the aura of the Triple Crown.

If you don’t know the result of the three races, you need to see this movie. It is prerequisite American history. If you do know the result of the three races, in clear detail, you need to see this movie. Just ignore the fluff about the Denver housewife. The myth of Secretariat needs to be preserved in American culture. It’s that important.

Sport of kings, indeed.

The metrics:

  • Would I see this movie opening weekend? Yes, yes, and again, yes.
  • Will I see this movie in theaters again? There’s a good shot, depending on who asks me to go see it with them.
  • Will I own this movie once it goes to DVD? There’s a very good shot this will end up on my Christmas list at some point in the future.

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